Category Archives: Image Comics

Sidekicks: Raven and Wolf

Death with the Four and Raven and Wolf.

Death with the Four and Raven and Wolf.

Ben’s Grim CornerSIDEKICKS: PART 2

There are a lot of heroes in the comic world where, once you’ve read an issue or two, you can see the sidekick in the works. You know the ones I’m talking about, blathering on to themselves about justice and the righteous path and yadda yadda. After the fourth monologue that should have clearly been internal, it’s apparent that Chatty McGee needs a sympathetic ear – preferably in matching colours and able to deliver one-liners that are just lame enough that it makes their fearless leader look cool.

The list is exhaustive, and the names to go with them are … well, frankly, terrible.

Batman and Robin: While arguably the coolest – and most dynamic, in case you didn’t hear – duo out there, being named after a bird whose only claim to fame is waking early to eat worms isn’t exactly striking fear into my heart.

Aquaman and Aqualad: No comment necessary. Proceed directly to boisterous laughter.

Archie and Jughead: Sadly, I think in this case the sidekick is cooler than the hero – and I use that term more loosely than Archie’s commitments to either of the skanks he spends his time with.

Alright, that’s enough digging into the classics. My point is that some heroes are just made for a sidekick. They go together like peanut butter and jam, mutants and Sentinels, evil scientists and death rays.

But sometimes, a hero comes along that is plainly made for the solitary life. It’s the kind of character that never gets caught with their pants down, always gets the job done with grace and seeming ease and, most importantly, keeps their damn trap shut. Let’s face it – it’s hard to have a sidekick if you have nothing to say. It kind of defeats the purpose for having all that company en route to smiting evil. Nightwing (ironically), Spawn, Hawkeye, and Captain Marvel are perfect examples of this; while they might not have much in common – and some have been members of various superteams – even when working with others, they each walk the path of the solo superpower.

That’s what makes our current feature so interesting. Hailing from the year-old bestseller East Of West, this protagonist is notorious for working alone. After all, when have you ever heard of someone working together with Death?

Yeah. The Death. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.

And yet, in the dystopian world of Apocalyptic America, Death doesn’t ride alone. No, I’m not talking about his three friends from that famous book at the back of the Bible – in East Of West, those guys are at odds with our pale friend. This time, I’m talking about his two new friends: Raven and Wolf.

Not much is known about the two monochromatic lovers; they follow Death for their own purposes; perhaps that purpose is shared, perhaps not. One thing, however, is certain: the only thing more terrifying than facing Death atop his lethal steed is to face him with a pack of wolves at his feet and a flock of ravens screaming for blood.

It’s not just their ability to assist Death in his primary function that sets them apart, however. While their story is largely unknown – both are members of the cryptic Endless Nation, each is individually a force of great magic with the ability to manifest themselves into the forms of their namesakes, and both seem to have a lot of history together, even before becoming Death’s entourage – they maintain a gravitas all their own. Their shadowy, silent entrance at the beginning of the series engenders a sort of servitude to Death, like this is not a relationship of convenience as much as a debt to be paid. Then, as the story progresses, they begin to fill in the silence – which, for the brooding Horseman they follow, is long and rarely interrupted. Now, on issue 11, you can see that this is not just a tale being told about the world at the end of days, nor is it the epic of a being who, born for the purpose of destruction, has a change of heart. This story is also about Death’s companions, two mystical enigmas with as much at stake as their leader.

To me, that’s the essence of a sidekick. It’s not someone who laughs at your jokes, takes your beatings or listens to your boring tirades about the latest supervillain; it’s someone with their own life and their own motivations who has chosen to share the road with you for a time.

Even if that road leads to Armageddon.

More sidekickery abounds, Extremites.

-Benjammin’

 

Raven and Wolf can be found in all eleven issues of Image Comics‘ ongoing series East Of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta.

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War For Its Own Sake: Image’s Zero

English: The portrait of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-18...

English: The portrait of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831); Steel engraving by Lazarus Sichling after a lithograph by Julius L. Sebbers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben’s Grim Corner

“No man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.”

A famous philosopher said that; a man named Georg Hegel – who most of you have probably never heard of, but I swear he’s famous with us philosophy nerds. The above statement is taken from his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, an amazing book to read if you spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the ridiculous impossibility of our civilization surviving into the 21st Century. Conversely, if you don’t care at all about this crap and you really need to fall asleep, it’s also a wonderful sedative.

The reason I bring this old German blowhard up is because of a term you’ve probably heard ad nauseum in the past few years, a term that he inspired: zeitgeist. Literally, the word is German for “spirit of the time”, and it refers to the culture that a specific era of history adhered to, like the obsession with Christian symbolism that dominated Medieval Europe, or the masterful weaponry and military strategy that accompanied the rise of the samurai in feudal Japan, or the monoliths and mythology of ancient Greece and Egypt.

However, in the spirit of the current time, Hegel’s above statement no longer applies. The world of today is multicultural, spanning the length and breadth of our history with every politic, religion, language and ethnicity represented, if not equally, at least in a limited capacity.

We, the thirty-somethings and under of the plugged-in section of Earth, are the generation without identity: we define ourselves not just by our neighbourhood or family background, but by our taste in music, our favourite film and literature, and our favourite food. It’s not unheard-of to meet a white kid from the suburbs who loves blaxploitation films and can beatbox like a pro, nor is it rare to find kids of Asian descent shredding a metal solo or screaming punk lyrics while sporting the smoothest, tallest mohawk any scene kid’s ever grown.

For us, that stuff’s old hat, but go back thirty years and find an Asian kid at a Black Flag concert, or a white kid busting a beat for his freestyling friends – it happened, but it was usually accompanied by “where’d that Asian kid come from?” or “where’d that cracker learn how to beatbox?” Today, we just take it all in stride; our heritage helps to define us, but it’s no longer the definition.

The idealist will look at this new trend and smile. “See,” he/she will say. “Through technology, we’ve unified under the common banner of Humanity. In time, all of our prejudices will fade out of existence and we’ll spend our days singing kumbaya and writing poems about how enlightened we are.”

And they’ll say it just like that, complete with the sardonic sneer (which you can’t hear, but trust me – it’s there).

I, however, would beg to differ. I think that our technology has erased some battle lines and replaced them with others, on sections of the field that were previously out of sight; sections like freedom of expression, right to property, and social justice on a global scale. If this technologically has assisted us in increasing our awareness, it’s only making clear how much more fucked up it all is for everyone, not just certain strata of society.

In fact, I would say that war is not an event, but rather a state of being – our state of being, to be precise. Veritably, there is only one thing that we can safely say is the zeitgeist of our age, and it’s not high definition screens or sub-woofers. Today more than ever before, we have all become warriors on a global, digitized battleground.

Whether you fight for solar panels and cancer research; or you protest the invasion of small nations you can barely pronounce by radicalized extremist factions with equally unpronounceable names; or you simply choose to shop at local markets and boycott Walmart; you have become a social soldier. The war of the present is not just fought with bullets and bombs, even if it may feel that way from the view of the mainstream media. On the contrary, our war is fought on message boards, blogs and social media; our weapons are our voices, our signatures, and our money; our only armour is our anonymity, something that is being slowly chipped away week by week.

You may want to believe that you are a pacifist. That’s a really sweet sentiment, and one I admire greatly as I myself aspire to such heights, but make no mistake, friends; pacifism is an ideal, something to aim for. It is not a reality, no matter how we’d like it to be; rather, in a world of perpetual war, pacifism is merely another type of resistance, a form of civil disobedience that is the quintessential monkey wrench in the gears of the global war machine. However, by that resistance, the pacifist becomes a target of the violence around them, invariably directing that which they resist directly at their blissful face.

Peace sounds real nice on paper, but it doesn’t just appear out of thin air, and it can’t exist without someone fighting to keep it – unless, of course, everyone’s perfectly happy with the way things are, which has never, ever happened.

Ever.

This, however, brings me back to Hegel, whose philosophy on history fits our age better than any other. Hegel developed a historical trend that he called the Hegelian dialectic; simply put, in every pivotal period of history there are two competing ideas: the first is the zeitgeist of the previous era, known as the thesis; the second, a new, opposing idea introduced through technology, exploration, or social innovation, known as the antithesis. As these two modes of thought, the thesis and antithesis, combat each other, they eventually combine to form a new, third idea, known as synthesis; this idea carries within it aspects of both the thesis and antithesis, but allows neither to be supreme. Examples of this throughout history can be seen with the founding of the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the American nation, and the Soviet Union. As can also be seen through those examples, each synthesis becomes a new thesis to be challenged by its next antithesis, leading to another inevitable conflict that will synthesize again, on and on into infinity.

Looking at things today, with the Internet rife with both censorship and hacktivism, the stock market a place of mergers and corporate conflict, nation-states fragmenting and unifying almost in the same breath, and even the farmland of the planet in a struggle between the seeds of the past and the GMO crops of the future, Hegel’s theory is more prevalent today than it has ever been.

The world of today may look different, but the eternal conflict rages on – in lieu of swords and spears, we wield drones and missiles; instead of religions and heretics, we have corporations and terrorists; but no matter the weapons or the motivation, the conflict remains uninterrupted, and the enemy is as it has always been: our neighbours, our rivals, and ourselves.

For the human race, existence is a perpetual state of war.

Zero.

Zero.

This is the premise of Zero, a new series written by the burgeoning talent that is Ales Kot (Suicide Squad, Change).

You may have heard of Ales Kot. If you haven’t, you will. Only a year and half since the release of his runaway hit graphic novel Wild Children, this Czech wordsmith is about to take on two new Marvel projects: Secret Avengers and Iron Patriot, both of which look extremely promising in Kot’s capable – and innovative – hands.

But we’re not here to talk about the big M, so let’s move on, shall we?

Edward Zero is a soldier, born and raised. He’s been taught from childhood to repress emotion, strike with murderous intent, and never leave a job unfinished.

And he’s not alone, as his small cadre of colleagues – employed by the secretive agency known as … the Agency (things are more important when they’re capitalized) – can attest. Or rather, they won’t attest. Because they’re secret agents. Attesting is against protocol, since it would require an opinion, and an opinion would necessitate feelings, and feelings are just messy when your sole purpose for existence is … um, murder.

But as is commonly the case with enigmatic paramilitary organizations, the river of secrets runs deep, and with only seven issues given to us so far, it’s already clear we’ve barely dipped our toes in.

Murder, betrayal, hidden agendas – even a little warping of space and time – it’s all there; yet, Kot also delivers it in a unique way: from the perspective of our protagonist decades after the story begins. Here, in 2038 at the barrel-end of an anonymous kindred gun-toting spirit, Edward’s tale is a combination of story and old man’s confession. Told in this way it feels almost like a memoir, complete with the regrets and nostalgia that only those older and wiser carry with them.

There are times while scanning a page-full of intricate hand-to-hand combat, that one wonders how such a scene of seamless martial ballet could share the same space with the articulate prose that Kot delivers, but it’s assuredly only the beginning. It’s clear from the outset of Zero that he intends for the series to exist for a good long time.

And for Edward – for all of us – existence is a perpetual state of war.

Until next time,

-Benjammin’

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Sins Of The Father: Image’s Echoes

Ben’s Grim Corner

echoes-comic-3The world is changing.

Now, isn’t that a ridiculous statement? Of course it’s changing – change is the only certainty in this temporal world. It seems pretty redundant to even use the sentence anymore; perhaps it belongs in the pile of other permanently-useless cliches, like “it’s deja vu all over again” (thank you very much, Yogi Berra) and “the Lord works in mysterious ways” (so does the wind, but I’m not about to give it credit for narrowly-missed car accidents or the Leafs missing the playoffs … again).

The fact that the world is changing is no more noteworthy to us than the fact that fire is hot. It’s the type of change – the rate, direction and, most importantly, the outcome – that are of the greatest relevance. And as I look around at the world today, the change I see is fast, aimless and largely terrifying.

But in some ways, we’ve barely changed at all. Sure, the trappings around us are flashier and make cooler noises, but as a people – as a civilization – we’re still pissing in corners to mark our territory and calling the smell “progress”.

Of course, this doesn’t account for everywhere in the world, but frankly the worry I have is not for certain towns and cities (although … Rob Ford…): we live in the first ever planet-wide community that has ever existed in our history, and we choose to focus on the grass growing in our backyard – or worse, the brown patch in our neighbour’s.

Despite mass communication, increased worldwide literacy, a growing social consciousness and revolutionary technological breakthroughs – and I’m just talking since I was born in the early ’80s – Christians are still being murdered in Pakistan, Central Africa and Syria for their beliefs; Palestinians are still hiding from missile strikes; ethnic groups in Spain and the Ukraine are struggling to have their voices heard; and the Supreme Leader of North Korea is shooting missiles at the ocean like it’s giving him the stink-eye.

Forgive me for believing too much in the species I’ve been born into, but aren’t we a little too old for this? It seems to me – and this is coming from someone who is considered by my culture to be entering the “the new 20s” – that the trouble isn’t coming from the changes of today, but from the morass of our history.

Despite our best efforts over the past century of conflict, protest, and mass production, we are still living in the shadows of our forefathers, those men (and I’m being very gender-specific right now) who claimed dominance over everything that didn’t look, dress, talk, and goosestep like they did.

We never truly escape the sins of our past, this much is true; we all know the distress that follows our youthful mistakes coming back to remind us what stupid little shits we used to be. But must we pay for the mistakes of those who never felt the sting of their own hubris and foolishness? Is there a way to wipe the slate clean, a way to return to innocence?

Sadly, I think the only way to put the past to rest is to face it in its entirety – right from the first clubbed skull on the plains of North Africa to the most recent one in the streets of Kiev, or Madrid, or Athens, or Kabul, or … well, name a fucking city.

If we’re really going to be able to move forward, if we want to actually change – not just our city, vocation, or political party, but our direction as a species – it’s going to happen when we start cleaning up our parents’ mess.

The trouble with that whole idealistic concept is that it’s not the things you know about your parents that make for a fucked-up childhood … it’s the skeletons in the closet. We must remember that the most horrific, unconscionable events in our history were discovered after they occurred, whether we’re talking about smallpox-laden gifts to the First Nations of North America, gulags in Soviet Russia, the Holocaust, or Edward Snowden‘s recent revelations (if you didn’t know, those NSA wiretaps began in 1997!).

And make no mistake, the worst secrets are surely yet to be revealed. There’s no shortage of hateful people with mobs of support behind them, and there aren’t enough cameras to keep track of it all … unless you count CCTV, which is a whole other conversation.

The point is, our history is fairly self-explanatory at first glance. It’s when we take a microscope to it, when we really dig deep and investigate the sources of our troubles, that we see who our predecessors truly were – and how much scrubbing we have to do before the dirt’s all gone.

This is precisely what Brian Cohn learns in Echoes, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal’s five-issue limited series about the dangers of digging up the past.

You may remember Rahsan Ekedal’s techno-military think piece Think Tank, a series that is still holding strong and getting more impressive every issue. The art in Echoes shares a similar style – both are black and white – but while Think Tank portrays strong, solid lines and intense, almost schematic-style design to the machinery, Echoes is blurred, sketch-like shades of grey – appropriately so, considering the themes involved in the story.

As for Fialkov, this fellow has a list of award nominations longer than his bibliography, most of which were directed at this particular series – Harvey noms for Best New Series (2011), Best Graphic Album previously published, Best Continuing or Limited Series, Best Writer, and Best Single Issue or Story for the fifth and final issue (2012).

Now, I know I’m usually focused on emerging or currently-running series, but I felt that this work deserved some notice. The series crossed my vision last fall when I was gearing up for these articles, but with such a long list of comics that deserved to be reviewed, it slipped right past me until now. Even though the comic finished in 2010, I still feel that certain comics deserve a return to the spotlight, if only for a moment – especially if the story has such a unique story that inspires more questions than it answers.

Brian Cohn is a mostly-functional paranoid schizophrenic. While still struggling with every day, he’s keeping an even keel; assisted by medication, his loving wife, and the exciting knowledge that he’s only weeks away from becoming a father.

Then, a phone call from the doctor: his own patriarch, the man from whom he inherited his mental disorder, has taken a turn for the worse. It’s a matter of days before he slips away, and this will be Brian’s last chance to say goodbye.

It’s during this final farewell that Brian’s father whispers a frightening confession to his psychologically-disturbed offspring:

“Thirteen thirty nine Haymaker. The bodies … the girls bodies…”

Thus begins a journey into the mind of a man who slowly spirals further and further away from sanity, while each twist of the road reveals more of the truth about his father … and himself.

And that, of course, is why we unearth our pasts; as unnerving or fearsome as it is, the story of our predecessors is but a part of our own tale, as the tale of our lives will be to the generations that follow us.

As Brian discovers – and as we all do, eventually – we must face our past – nay, we are compelled to face it, to learn from its failures and atrocities.

Or, as Winston Churchill warned us just as Stalin’s gulags filled with innocents and the smoke of Auschwitz’s incinerators filled the air, we are doomed to repeat it.

Until next week.

-Benjammin’

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Evil On The Radio: Image’s A Voice In The Dark

aVoiceInTheDark03-Digital-1They are everywhere.

They look just like us. They eat with us, sleep next to us, wear the same clothes and watch the same movies. They live just beneath our notice, masters of infiltration and secrecy. If we are the sheep, they are the wolves in wooly clothing. We see them, but we know not who or what they are.

And behind their masks, they thrive.

They are lawyers, politicians, law enforcement, journalists, stock brokers, business tycoons, porn kings, drug dealers and weapons manufacturers. They smile and laugh like we do, but behind their eyes is a darkness we don’t share, a callous disregard for their fellow man that is as antithetic to us as our empathy and affection is to them.

We have a word for them now. We call them psychopaths, and as far as the world would have us believe, they are a fairly new phenomenon – but truthfully, they have been with us since the beginning. Warlords, inquisitors, conquerors and slavers have traded their swords and whips for power suits, batons and smartphones, but their urges are no less sadistic. They see themselves as the heroes of their own story, and we, the weak, are merely expendable extras.

The truly sad part of it all is that they are not to blame. If modern psychology can be trusted, the existence of psychopaths is as much a result of nature as it is of nurture. In fact, the difference between the two – genetic predisposition as opposed to environmental and social influence – now have their own definitions. Those considered to be “natural” are called psychopaths, while those created through traumatic life experience are known as sociopaths.

In essence, the two terms are deviations of the same subject. Whether psycho or socio, both are manifestations of that which we call evil.

You remember evil. I mentioned it once or twice in my last piece, mostly in regards to how it has become such a frequent theme in recent years. I won’t deny that it has always been a theme – perhaps the theme – of our art and literature, but until now it has been largely portrayed in a fashion that leaves us out of the equation. Evil has been personified in a myriad of forms, from Shelley’s Frankenstein monster to Stoker’s Dracula to Conan Doyle‘s Mr. Hyde.

And there is, of course, Shiva, Loki, and Satan of ancient lore, embodiments of those things which we fear or hate within us – but within us they remain, regardless of our constant externalization.

But when we talk about psychopathy, we are not strictly talking about esoteric topics such as morality. We are talking about the human mind; in particular, a small percentage of men and women who have a difficulty interpreting emotion.

Current research suggests that the difference between a psychopath and a so-called “normal” person is that a psychopath does not feel. They act, they comprehend, they observe our mannerisms and study our habits, they can even mimic us so perfectly that we are unaware of them; but they do not understand us – any more than we understand them.

It’s more like Jekyll and Hyde than Doyle even realized.

But can we say definitively that either we or the psychopaths are “correct”, or “healthy”?

Can it be as simple as black and white? Is it ever that simple?

I understand that this is likely not going to be a well-received idea, but I believe that historically, we are very proficient at pointing at things we don’t understand and calling them evil – race, gender, belief systems, sexual orientation, the list goes on. Most of these moral arguments are still going on today, even in the societies that we consider the most progressive and open-minded.

If this says anything to me, it’s that we have a long way to go before we’ve redeemed ourselves for our transgressions.

And it’s this idea of redemption, the concept that we must atone for our sins, that makes my question all the more poignant. I don’t think any of us can argue that murder is evil, and mass murder more so, but does that only pertain to human life? What of the millions of animals slaughtered every day to feed us? What of the terrible conditions they’re forced to live in – conditions that, if the creatures stuck in them could speak our language and use our mannerisms, we would call criminal. Is this sort of daily massacre that we all tolerate something that deserves redemption, or is it simply “normal”?

This isn’t a vegetarian rant, don’t worry. I’m simply using this as a comparison. We look at Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, and John Wayne Gacy with disgust and revulsion, but the simple fact is that they don’t relate to us any more than we relate to the goat or the sheep. What we find disgusting is that they do it to us, not that they do it at all.

Face it: as much as it may be hard to admit, if Gacy had relegated his sadistic urges to birds and insects, we might not have hung out with the guy, but he’d still be in society. And for me, that says something very important about the so-called “healthy” members of our species.

The great thinker J. Krishnamurta once said: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Take a look around folks. Do we look that healthy to you?

Now, with all that said, I’m not defending serial killers, and I’m definitely not suggesting that they’re blameless. What I’m saying is that by separating ourselves from them, by treating them as aberrations and monsters, we’re only fueling the dark flame that burns within them. I’m not a psychologist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know people (it’s kinda my thing), and I don’t think anyone does anything unless they either want to or they feel that they have to. And when people with the need to fill an emotional void with progressively more dangerous and terrible acts feel like they have to hide who they are, it simply makes it harder to find them – and easier for them to justify their sickness. Their isolation feeds the beast, and all of us suffer as a result.

If we want to truly call ourselves open-minded, we have to try and do what these psychopaths can’t seem to do themselves. We have to try to understand them, because by doing that, we will also understand ourselves. As previously stated, this evil is not outside our doors — it’s right there inside us.

Always has been, always will be.

But how do we reach out to this evil without somehow inviting ourselves to become a part of it? How can we have a conversation with the darkness – and more importantly, what would it have to say?

Well, folks, there is now A Voice In The Dark, and it is more authentic, eloquent, and self-reflective than I could have imagined.

The author of this brilliant, if a little less visually-stimulating, comic is Larime Taylor – and let me tell you, this guy is probably the most remarkable comic creator I’ve ever had the pleasure to write about.

No offense … umm, everyone else.

Seriously, though, this man’s story is almost as good as his comic – and that’s saying a fair amount.

Larime was born with a very rare congenital disease called arthrogryposis, and it’s no picnic: basically, Mr. Taylor is bound to a wheelchair, unable to properly (if at all) use his limbs. He lives on social security (which is a pittance if you’ve ever looked it up) and spends his time writing and drawing.

“Wait a tick,” I know you’re asking. “How does a dude with no use of his arms write and draw a comic?”

That’s the trick, folks – the entire comic is written, drawn, and lettered with his mouth.

Yes, that same thing that’s hanging open right now on your face is the primary tool used in Larime’s work.

So what does this mean for the art? It means that considering the guy draws with his cake hole, it’s a fucking masterpiece. It’s definitely not Jim Lee, but damned if Lee could do a better job with no hands. Frankly, there are some comics I’ve discussed before that rely on the art to make them worth reading – Prophet, Manhattan Projects, and Fatale to name a few. This, however, is not one of them. In this case, the pictures are nothing more than a visual aid – it’s the story that makes this book stand out.

So what is A Voice In The Dark all about?

Teenager Zoey Aarons tells us right away that she’s just a normal kid – good parents, nice school, solid upbringing, no serious trauma. But there has always been this darkness inside her, a part of her that is simultaneously thrilling and frightening.

She has already indulged it once in recent months, but the feeling persists. Even though she counts the days since her last kill, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she loses control again.

But she believes she’s found a way to cope – now in the first few months of college, she has spearheaded a radio show on a local college station: it’s a show where the troubled, sexually-frustrated teenagers of the town can call in and talk about their darkest fears and urges. For the town’s youthful residents, it becomes a place of refuge, where they can go to be heard and given some strong, helpful advice from a peer.

For Zoey, it’s a confessional; a place where she can be reminded that she’s not alone. And for a few hours a week in the dark silence of the sound booth , she can let her dark side out, give it a chance to connect with kindred spirits without it resulting in a body count.

But all is not as it seems in her new town, a place appropriately known as Cutter’s Circle. It appears that the bustling, somewhat gentrified community has a tumultuous past – and a daunting present. Even as Zoey takes steps to keep her urges at bay, another is indulging them on the wealthy, pretty girls of Zoey’s college campus. And when one killer is on the loose, others invariably get pulled into their orbit, as our protagonist quickly discovers.

That, for all intents and purposes, is the pared-down story thus far. There’s a lot I’m leaving for you to discover, but let me just say that the hole goes deeper and I’m sure we haven’t seen the bottom yet – after all, it’s only six issues in.

However, there is a small problem. You see, there’s a reason why every article I’ve written has been about comics that no one talks about. Honestly, independent creators like Larime Taylor are not wealthy. In fact, this comic is in serious danger of being scrapped if it doesn’t get more attention.

The issue here isn’t a lack of praise or limited availability – it’s that no one talks about comics like A Voice In The Dark. And we should, because as much as I hate to admit it, we don’t need any more Wolverines or Supermen. What we need is fresh, new stories without six decades worth of convoluted story dragging along behind it.

It’s easy to make a beautiful, colourful and ultraviolent comic book with millions of dollars to back it up like the big dogs do it. Guys like Larime are doing it on $750 a month. Just think what he could do with a little more cash in his pocket — I mean, the guy creates a brilliant, well-developed comic book every month, and he does it without PR teams, syndicated television shows, and business deals with Disney.

Shit, he does it without hands.

So if you really love comics – not characters or superhero teams, but comics as a literary art form – then please, tell your friends, tweet this review, and buy an issue or two. If your local comic store doesn’t have any copies, you can purchase them online from the Image website.

For the future of independent comics, leave DC and Marvel on the shelf and put your money where Larime’s mouth is.

Until next time.

-Benjammin’

Ben’s Grim Corner

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A Reflection of Evil: Image’s Bedlam

comics_bedlamThere’s a subject that has drawn my avid interest of late. Well … perhaps interest is an understatement. It would be a little closer to the mark to call it an obsession; however, to use that term in conjunction with the subject at hand is, to me, a little ironic.

It’s not just me that seems to share my infatuation. As with all art throughout history, there are themes that become the focus of an era or a generation, subjects that fascinate not just the artists in question, but also the audience. Michelangelo; Pablo Picasso; Andy Warhol; Stan Lee; Frank Miller; all of them were the pioneers of an artistic movement that was (and still is) equals parts aesthetic innovation and social commentary.

You think I’m a little crazy. That’s okay – in fact, it fits the subject quite appropriately. But before we move on, allow me to give you some evidence of my thesis.

Michelangelo … well, I hope I don’t have to tell you who he is. His most famous work is, of course, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a massive undertaking that consists of dozens of frescoes covering over 5,000 square feet.

But that’s not the piece that has always grabbed my attention. Instead, it’s a painting he was commissioned to add to the chapel twenty years later known as The Last Judgement. It depicts the ol’ Man Upstairs and Mary, the seven trumpeting angels of the Apocalypse just beneath – and below their clarion call, we, the puny mortals, are being split into our respective camps of Saved and Damned like cattle at a factory farm.

Why is this relevant?It’s not just because of what it depicts, but where it’s located – right at the exit of the chapel, where the pious could stare in horror at their fate if they missed next week’s Mass — an example of how art and propaganda were once synonymous with each other (ah, how the old becomes new again…)

Next, Picasso. This guy is one of the most influential artists of the past hundred years, but to be honest I used to hate him. When I was a youngster in first year Art History, I always scoffed at the Cubist movement the same way that some city councillors scoff at graffiti. After being forced to stare at his work for a while, though, I must say that I understand him much better – even though I’m still not a fan.

What made Picasso important to art was his ability to deconstruct; that is, break something natural into its basic geometric components. Looking at Picasso’s Cubist work is like seeing the artist’s sketch – and it allows us to put the art together in our own mind.

Warhol, on the other hand, was in many ways the antithesis to Picasso. Where Pablo was breaking it down for us and leaving it to our imagination, Andy was all about redundancy – his movement, known as pop art, was made up of single images that were recast infinitely with different colour schemes, all shown in tandem together to create a monotonous tone. He was the first artist to employ “factory art”, and even had employees solely for the purpose of creating his redundant work.

Stan Lee is someone you should all know – and if you don’t, GET OUT!

Seriously. Don’t come back. You’re not welcome here.

Why is he even mentioned? Because he, along with Will Eisner and Jerry Siegel, was one of the first writers to bring art and literature together for an audience above the age of nine. Sure, his early stuff is pretty tame by our standards, but considering that he was writing in the war-torn ’40s and the censor-ridden McCarthyist ’50s, he did the best he could. If you consider that he was writing stories about genetic and radioactive mutation, employing concepts such as homo superior and cosmic otherworldly influences to a generation that was fond of using the colour pink to describe social assistance programs, you can see the sort of prophetic insight the man really had.

Frank-MillerAnd then there’s Frank Miller, arguably the man most responsible for the darker edge we now attribute to the comic realm. His first true impact began with his depiction of Daredevil in the early ’80s, where he was the man to make Hell’s Kitchen worthy of its name. From there the list gets longer and more notable: Sin City, 300, The Dark Night Returns, and the original Wolverine mini-series, the famous four-part legend of “Patch” and the island of Madripoor that brought our clawed anti-hero into the annals of Marvel one-shot history.

“Holy shit, dude. Is there a point to this?”

Watch your mouth, friendly reader. I’ve been really good about keeping the swears to a minimum in this one.

The point is that each one of these artists, from Michelangelo right on down to Miller, in some way represented the zeitgeist of their time.

The Last Judgement – and the rest of Michelangelo’s work – depicted the mass obsession of the 16th Century with damnation, the divine, and the End Times – an obsession that barely seems to have left our consciousness today.

Picasso was using his art to deconstruct natural forms, much in the same way that particle physicists and chemists were performing the same task in the laboratory in the early 20th Century.

Warhol’s pop art was a blatant commentary on the factory-fed super-consumption of the 80’s – something we still grapple with in the early years of the 2000’s.

As for Lee and Miller, they were able to successfully deliver the spirit of their time periods to a mass audience in a way that left both the aesthetic and literary sides of us satisfied – something that had previously never been done as successfully as they performed it, at least until the adoption of comic-to-film adaptations and the subsequent increase in attention to the world of comics – and thus, fandom – that has resulted.

And now we return to my recent obsession, the focus of my own increasingly divided attention over the past month or two as I’ve barraged my mind with series after series of graphic masterpieces in the pursuit of subjects worthy of my penmanship and your perusal.

Ah, but as I said, this isn’t just my obsession; true to my thesis, a quick account of the successful films and television shows of the past five years will show that we are all fascinated by the same phenomenon: Hannibal, The Following, American Horror Story and True Detective are just a few of the examples of this current trend.

I’m talking, of course, about psychosis.

But is that really what it’s about? Looking at this from the same perspective as the artistic movements I just described, one might even consider that this isn’t just about the nature of the mind, but the nature of humankind itself. For me, this appears to be not just an investigation into criminal minds, or even into our psychology as a whole – in truth, this is an inquiry into morality.

In the same way that a painting can force us, even unconsciously, to observe the intrinsic components of form as Picasso did; or that a photo of a celebrity, repeated into redundancy, can be a commentary on the banality of mass production; television, film, and comics – the nouveau art form – are reviving an age-old discussion, one that Michelangelo himself was neck-deep in almost five centuries ago.

Unlike the old days, though, we’re no longer trying to gussy it up, putting pretty bows and flowery words on it, gluing wings to its back or planting horns on its forehead, giving it some sort of anthropomorphic representation. Gone is the era of glancing sidelong at ourselves through a tinted glass. Now we must stare directly at it, study it in full, gory detail, for our fascination is not with psychosis or maladies of the mind, even if that’s what they call the morsels they feed us — no, what we are studying are maladies of the soul.

We all have a capacity for it – that godlike ability to justify our immorality while we belabor the same vices in others, slowly putting one foot in front of the other on that road paved with the oh-so-smooth tarmac of our “good intentions”. And the less we acknowledge it, the stronger its hold on us becomes, until we are laughing maniacally at the horror that we have inflicted … the horror that we are growing to love.

It’s called evil.

But is evil something you are, or is it something you do?

This is the question that Nick Spencer posits on the cover of Bedlam, a tale of mayhem, morality and madness … and it’s a question that remains the centerpiece of his feverish 11-issue rampage through the darkest corners of the soul.

Yeah, it’s that Nick Spencer – the same dude who was hurting my brain with his mad story skills in Morning Glories. If you haven’t read his work, get on it! This is going to be a man who shares the halls of 21st Century comic fame with Bendis, Millar, and Kirkman (among others, but these guys are the top dogs to me).

jk00004Alright, I don’t have to laud Spencer’s skills, since they’re staring you in the face in everything he has a hand in. With Bedlam, however, the power of the story is shared equally with the art and colouring – and I mean hand-in-hand, death-do-us-part, hold-these-rights-self-evident kind of equal.

I’m a writer, so when I say that the art had as much impact on me as the writing, that’s like a pop singer digging a guitar solo; there’s always an appreciation, but it’s gotta be top-notch to get our undivided attention. And with Riley Rossmo (Cowboy Ninja Viking, Daken: Dark Wolverine), my attention is assuredly undivided – he has a style in this book that gives me shivers: as much sketch as it is detail, it gives everything this sort of frenzied madness that brings the emotions right to the front, ready for Spencer to slash to bits with his sharp wit.

The colour takes this work from impressive to awe-inspiring: Jean-Paul Csuka uses his palette to paint the past in vivid monochrome, forcing your eyes to places you’d prefer to hide from. The present, on the other hand, is faded and almost listless in tone, as if the main character’s memories are more real than the present will ever be.

And who is this protagonist – a term never used more loosely in comic history than it is in this case?

His name is Fillmore Press.

His name is also Madder Red.

Which is his real name? That remains to be decided: each is a creature of their own motivations, each unfortunately sharing the same vessel, like siamese twins attached at the brain.

Madder Red is the past, a monstrous villain who brought the city of Bedlam to its knees … years ago. As far as the terrorized citizens are concerned, he’s long dead.

This, of course, is not the case. The truth is that Madder Red was … rehabilitated. Sort of. In the same way that Alex was turned from his life of ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange, or Darth Vader was made Sith through the Emperor’s machinations, Madder Red has been crushed, twisted and re-molded into a semi-functioning, heavily-medicated social moron known as Fillmore Press.

But the memories remain – as hard as Fillmore tries to forget his days as the criminal overlord of Bedlam, he sees Madder Red in every mirror. Somehow, though, Fillmore resists. He knows what he’s done in his past is terrible, barely even passable as human, and he craves redemption. As such, he begins showing up at the scenes of horrific crimes inspired by his former scarlet persona, and before long his natural kinship with psychosis gets him involved in bringing his acolytes to justice.

But with every case, Fillmore brings himself closer to Madder Red. He’s always just on the edge, clawing at the door of his mind, staring through his eyes, waiting for his moment to regain the advantage. And as the plot thickens and the madness he’s unleashed in his past begins to bring him closer to his past, it becomes less and less clear which identity is the true one.

I’ve warned you all before in previous articles, but this warning is more serious than ever – if you are the least bit queasy, do not read this comic! This story is not, in any way, for the faint of heart. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s for the strong of heart. As far as depravity, violence and insanity portrayed in graphic form are concerned, Bedlam isn’t even in a different league – it’s a different game altogether.

But isn’t that how it always is with the most poignant of human expression? Like Michelangelo and Picasso, like Lee and Miller, the best art forces us to look at ourselves from an angle we’ve never considered before.

Even if that angle shows us as the very devils we crusade against.

More evil for y’all next time, folks.

-Benjammin’

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What Dreams May Come: Image’s Mind The Gap

Mortality, with class.

Mortality, with class.

A few weeks ago, I went on at great length about mortality: the great equalizer, the part of us that is both terrifying and inescapable. It’s the shadow within our shadow, staring at us with malicious intent, waiting for us to slip or lose focus and make the wrong turn into Death‘s patient embrace.

It is what drives us, the reason we aim with such religious fervour towards those goals we choose for ourselves; the reason we fight our adversaries with such intensity; the reason we write, draw, paint, speak our fiery words – because we know the end is coming, and we must leave something of ourselves that will remain when our bodies are dust and our existence a distant memory.

But what’s next?

This question is the source of our mythology, our religion and our philosophy. No matter the subject or interpretation, our belief systems have all been in the pursuit of understanding the mysteries of life, the most notable of those mysteries being that which is the cause of all the others, the reason we seek knowledge with such zeal in the first place.

What happens to us when we die?

Is there an afterlife, or does existence simply consist of a single iteration for each organism? Is our consciousness an evolutionary accident, something to ponder before we hit that final moment when it all comes to end; or is there something eternal within us, a soul that travels beyond, into other realms outside of this fragile framework we spend all of our time in?

The explanation, even after millennia of constant searching, remains out of our grasp. Sadly, it’s also the biggest reason why we keep offing each other in record numbers.

That, to me, is the ultimate irony: all this time we’ve been spending convincing each other of this or that version of the same old bullshit, and what we seem to have been missing all of this time is something that stares us in the face every single day, and yet we fail to acknowledge its implacable gaze.

The simple, hard truth is this: no matter what you believe, no matter the strength of your convictions or the miracles you perform, you shit your pants at the end just like everyone else.

Our opinions, our scriptures, prayers, burning bushes and flaming chariots, our golden tablets and stone carvings and alien sightings don’t save a single one of us from dropping a load in our drawers. If there was really anything to avoid, I don’t think it would be death – as I asserted last week, it’s the end of the story that makes it worth telling. If I could avoid anything, it would be stinking up the place when I make my exit.

By Odin's beard, could this be where we go after we shuffle off this mortal coil?

By Odin’s beard, could this be where we go after we shuffle off this mortal coil?

That, my friends, is the only certainty after life departs you. Valhalla, Sheol, Elysium, Heaven – call it whatever you like, it’s all conjecture. Here, on this planet, someone else will be changing your shorts before the funeral. None of us give a shit (no pun intended) about that, though: what matters is that somewhere, somehow, we keep floating around high-fiving our incorporeal selves and watch the rest of the living skitter around like ants.

Now, please don’t mistake my tone for frustration; honestly, I find the whole thing hilarious. See, I don’t consider death to be something tragic. It’s just a thing that happens to all of us at its appointed time. I don’t worry myself with what happens afterwards, because frankly it doesn’t concern me until I get there. It’s like puberty – we all go through it, we all have a hard time making the adjustment, and a few years later we look back and laugh at how confusing it all seemed when we were just getting accustomed to how things really are.

There are certain discrepancies to the current ways of interpreting the afterlife that leave me boggled, however. For instance, what happens before we’re born? Why does that barely enter our thought process, while the end is such a frightening prospect? Does it ever occur to us that there were billions of years preceding our blip of an existence, just as there will be billions more after we’re gone? Why do the ages that follow us matter so much more than the ones that came before?

This was the conundrum that I pondered for many years, but it seemed that there was another beneath my nose that had escaped my notice – until recently, that is – and it was a mysterious, beautifully-rendered graphic novel that brought it to my attention. This series has inspired more philosophical musing from me than I had experienced since reading the Watchmen over a decade ago – and this from someone who spends more time musing than sleeping.

The conundrum that this story revealed to me was this: if we go somewhere when we die – or don’t, as the case may be – then what of people in a coma? Is that not, as far as science is concerned, a type of death?

I mean, really, what’s the difference between death and unending sleep? Would we dream? Are our dreams in this life really an exploration of that place we go when we pass?

Do coma patients’ souls escape the body, or are they trapped within, fighting to regain control?

Can it possibly be in both situations at the same time?

And most of all, how bad would that suck?!

mind-the-gap-1Welcome to the world of Jim McCann, Rodin Esquejo, and Sonia Oback‘s Mind The Gap, a psycho-philosophical thriller that attempts to challenge the widely-accepted ideas of death, sleep, the soul and … how terrible I apparently am at keeping track of a well-organized plot.

Honestly, this book grabbed me by the balls – and it’s still squeezing.

First, the people behind this masterpiece.

Jim McCann is … well, his experience is quite eclectic. It stretches from writing daytime soap opera serials to doing PR for Marvel in the ’00s to contributing work for the iconic House Of M and Dark Reign series as well as having a hand in the New Avengers. Beyond that, his graphic novel, Return of the Dapper Men, was nominated for 5 Eisners – and even won for Best Graphic Album!

And interestingly enough, all of his previous experience can be seen in Mind The Gap: the emotional drama of daytime serials is there right alongside the supernatural elements that normally dominate the comic shelves, each enhancing the other in a way that keeps the story fresh and free of the tired old cyclical story arcs we’ve become accustomed to.

You probably remember Rodin Esquejo if you’ve been reading my stuff for a while – he’s the artist behind the Lost-meets-Degrassi-High drama Morning Glories. He brings the same level of masterful work to the table this time. The thing about Esquejo that draws me in is his ability to portray emotion in his characters. There are times when an artist will signify sadness with a single tear, or a shadowy silhouette accompanied by some flowery eulogy-worthy words from the writer, but Esquejo needs none of these devices. The emotion he can deliver with his art is as complex as that of a real human being. He doesn’t just show a single tear: he shows the anger on the character’s face at their inability to keep the sadness within themselves. Their posture indicates that edge-of-panic feeling that we all get when we feel overwhelmed and we’re just waiting for someone unfortunate enough to get in our way so we can unleash all of our pain on the poor sucker. But Esquejo doesn’t need to show the confrontation – you can see it just in the angry eyes, the set of the shoulders and that single tear, and not a word need be spoken.

Sonia Oback’s colouring experience is as rich as her palette – Witchblade, The Darkness, and X23: Target X are all work that I’ve always loved for their unique colour schemes, and Mind The Gap is no different. Whether it’s the single-colour schemes of hospital rooms, the dank, seedy brick-and-steel of a subway station, or the vivid rainbow of colour in the Garden (I’ll explain the Garden in a moment), she evokes the feel of each place beautifully. But it’s not even necessarily the environments that need the attention in this story as much as the characters: the cast of this story is so ethnically diverse that it requires someone with the kind of sensibilities that Oback offers to render them all properly without it seeming … well, painted on.

That was a bad joke. Sorry, folks. I’m a fan of the pun.

Anyway, on to the story.

The plot of Mind The Gap, at first glance, appears quite simplistic. Like any great story, however, the devil is in the details. For your sake, I’ll leave those for you to pick out.

The story begins with an attack. Elle Peterssen has been found in a subway station in a coma. The assailant, motive, and circumstances of the attack are unknown. All we can tell for sure is that, as McCann puts it, everyone is a suspect.

Thus begins a whodunit that takes us not only all over New York City, but into the mind of an immensely brilliant woman who happens to be comatose in a hospital room.

And this is where the rubber hits the road – after the attack, Elle finds herself in a place known as the Garden, a dreamlike reality that is reserved for those who are between the states of life and death. Coma patients, the terminally ill and those who have just exited their bodies for the last time all find themselves in the Garden for some span of time. The kicker is that Elle can’t remember a single thing about how she got there or who attacked her … something that she can see her friends and family struggling to find out for themselves.

But Elle isn’t like the other residents of the Garden. As she discovers quite accidentally, she’s able to hop into the bodies of those who’ve just left the mortal realm – only for a moment, but long enough to put the staff at her resident hospital in a confused uproar.

Meanwhile, as Elle tries to understand her unique out-of-body abilities, the drama surrounding her earthly form unfolds. Betrayals, secret organizations, corporate entities and even ex-Nazi scientists enter the race for Elle Peterssen’s body.

And time is running out for her. Will the mystery be revealed before she dies?

Or is death just the beginning?

We can only hope, as we always do. After all, it’s what we seem to do best.

Until next time.

-Benjammin’

Ben’s Grim Corner

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Fall In Love With Image’s Fatale

fatale-spl-625x333Love is in the air, folks.

Wait – that’s not love. Sorry, after so many Valentine’s Days, I have a lot of trouble separating the sweet scent of affection from the stench of commodified trash.

Is it just me, or do the salespeople responsible for V Day seem to be a perfect mimic of that girl/boyfriend that sits at number one on your list of shittiest people you’ve ever known? You know the one, sharing the uncoveted top spot with the crazy person who confessed their love to you after five minutes of conversation and smoking three of your cigarettes – possibly because, five years after you dumped them, they were that crazy person?

Some people just can’t handle rejection, but Valentine’s Day businesses seem to function as if they could never be rejected. They’re way too pretty and cool to be rejected, obviously: haven’t you seen the ads?

Advertisements with sexy girls in see-through nighties and skimpy Hallowe’en costumes that they couldn’t sell six months ago (how they ever thought a pumpkin could be sexy, no matter what time of year, is beyond me) occupy the same space with posters offering free trials of dating websites and psychological profiles intended to help you figure out what’s wrong with you so that girl that you have so much trouble talking to will finally smile when you stammer a joke (here’s a hint: write the joke down, deliver it to the mirror till you feel confident, and get a damn haircut. And stop drooling. It’s not helping).

And yet somewhere in this cacophony of “don’t you feel lonely?” and “we can revive your sex life” and “buy her a ring before she gets tired of your smelly feet and shitty puns”, we’re supposed to find that connection we’re all looking for.

You know what I’m talking about, right? That emotion that keeps us all paralyzed; the feeling that supercedes all others, making the worst pain bearable, giving even the blackest stormclouds some illusory silver lining; the ever-sought and rarely-discovered continent of Love, wherein lies our heart’s purest desire.

It’s a neverending quest for that elusive feeling, the one we felt long ago in a hallway in grade nine when that girl or boy stumbled and threw their papers everywhere. You knew right then and there that that clumsy, awkward girl with the freckles or boy with the braces was perfect for you.

LoveDrugThere’s a term for that feeling. Heroin addicts call it “chasing the dragon”. They say that your first high is the best, and the addiction stems from trying to rediscover the feeling that you first found.

Perhaps you think I’m too cynical about love, what with the nonchalant comparison to severely addictive narcotics, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I am, at this very moment, madly in love with a beautiful, brilliant woman whose smile seems to brighten the world every time I see it. Sometimes, I find myself in the kitchen at work, chopping onions or some such monotonous task with the stupidest grin plastered across my face, just thinking about something she said or the way she smells or how I like the way her butt sways when she walks–

She’s reading this, so I should probably stop there. I’ve got her pretty convinced I’m one smooth operator and I don’t wanna fuck it up for myself.

My point, folks, is that the feeling I get for my wonderful partner and the feeling that this embarrassment of a holiday is trying to convey are not the same thing. One is the result of an emotional connection built over time, while the other is…

Well, it’s just a chemical reaction in your brain.

The fact is that women, as a species – and I mean that sincerely, because that slight chromosomal deviation separates our genders as completely as dogs and cats – are holding all the cards. They’ve got us straight dudes all figured out, and all that advertising, all those rings and sexy outfits and chocolates and dinner reservations – they’re just keeping us in thrall.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming women one iota for this. Their power over us is as innate as the queen bee’s dominance over her colony. Their shape is designed for our pleasure, their movements hypnotic, their lips oh-so-kissable, their embrace more comforting than the warmest blanket.

And the sex…

Honestly, I wish I was gay sometimes, so that I could maintain some modicum of intelligence when I see a naked woman. Gay dudes seem to be so put together, whereas I just turn into a puddle of bliss every time I see side-boob.

But then, I can’t imagine what it’s like on the other side of things. Always being hit on, dirty smelly dudes constantly eyeing your special parts, leering drunk losers slurring some pathetic pick-up line any time you grab a drink at the bar – or on the way to the bar – or on the way back from the bar – or on your way into the cab because you can’t stand these mindless drunken apes anymore.

Hell, it’s no wonder most girls are as sick of V Day as I am. If they’re straight, they’re definitely holding the shit end of the stick – and you can take that metaphor wherever you damn well please, you perverts.

In reality, Valentine’s Day isn’t about love, or lust, or even connection. It’s another day where the corporate candy-men can offer us something we can never have.

And isn’t that what we all want? Is it love we’re celebrating on February 14th, or is it simply our eternal quest for the unattainable?

Enter Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips. They’ve chosen to bring this very subject to life – but not quite in a way I’ve seen before. Through their enticing storytelling and unmatched artistry, they’ve created a comic every bit as irresistible as its protagonist.

fatale-coversThe book is called Fatale. The protag, a woman by the name of Josephine.

There is much, even twenty issues in (the newest just dropped this week!), that we still don’t know about Josephine – or Jo, as she prefers to be called. That said, there are a few things that are certain about her.

Number one: she is, as far as can be seen thus far, immortal. She has lived for at least five hundred years and she doesn’t seem to be aging at all.

Number two: she has a supernatural power over straight men, turning even the happiest married man into her personal slave within mere moments of meeting her.

Number three: Jo has been – and continues to be – chased by a demonic cult that has transcended the ages just as she has. They have been Nazis, religious fanatics, hippie cultists – pretty much any group that can fly under the radar and remain clandestine. Their leader is as enigmatic as Jo herself.

Lastly: Josephine has no idea who she is, why she can do what she does, or how to stop it. All she knows is that men will do anything for her … and to survive, she must let them.

The story is told in a noir-style, largely narrated by the men who have fallen under her spell, and each story arc carries with it the zeitgeist of the time it takes place in. Whether it is the hyper-seriousness of post-war America, the hazy drug-induced mania of the ’70’s, or the angst-ridden jeans and piercings of the turn of the century, each tale is told with true justice done to the period.

Normally, this might make a story choppy and hard to follow, but the constant is the art: Sean Philips’ shadowy depiction of Josephine’s world becomes the fulcrum from which the story tilts. Philips’ art is abundant with silhouetted scenes and whispers from the darker corners of the city, speaking of the secrets that lurk just beyond view, secrets that the reader all-too-often realizes would be better left in the dark where they belong.

For me, however, it isn’t the setting or the art that connects with me the most, even though they’re both breathtaking in their delivery; for me, the piece de resistance is the characters. Each man who finds themselves inextricably tangled into Jo’s mystery becomes a new narrator, and we see all of them not only drawn into her spell, but also fully aware that something is profoundly wrong. As they become more permanent fixtures in Jo’s life, the reader witnesses these men slowly losing their ability to reason as her supernatural desire brings them further and further away from themselves, and closer to becoming her slaves.

It’s like watching myself in high school all over again.

But as the mystery unfolds, as each of these men rejects their old life simply for the chance to be close to her, to feel her touch and see her smile – it steadily becomes apparent that Josephine wants no part of it. While most of us would relish at the chance to wrap our lovers around our finger as completely as Jo can, she is filled with sorrow with every man who crosses her path or meets her gaze. Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t crave the passion and desire that she exudes so innately. What Jo wants, more than anything, is to be alone.

It’s the one thing she’ll never have.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Until next time.

– Benjammin’

Ben’s Grim Corner

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The Death Of Death: Image’s Revival

ages-woman-deathYou are going to die.

Don’t worry, it’s not gonna happen right now; but someday, somewhere, while you’re involved in the day-to-day of that thing called life that we all take for such extreme granted, you are assuredly going to fade away; punch your ticket; kick the bucket; shuffle off this mortal coil…

I could go on, but I digress.

And I mean that honestly. To me, a conversation about death is a digression, something to be discussed with fondness, like talking about an old friend whom I haven’t seen in many years.

Weird? Most would agree with you. Frankly, Death and I have a very intimate relationship.

The first time I died I was two years old. I drowned – a pretty beach ball was floating in the deep end of the pool at a water park, and since everyone else’s head was above water, I just assumed it was safe to jump right in. Needless to say, I sunk like a stone – minus the flailing and attempted cries of panic that stones usually refrain from performing.

They’re much more amenable to sinking, I suppose.

But I – well, the two-year-old “I” – wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Or at least a good cry.

Right about now I assume your face is in a confusing battle between smirk and shock as I discuss the potential death of a young child so nonchalantly. But honestly, it wasn’t that scary. I felt the life fade from me; the darkness closed in; and then I was floating, like that beach ball atop the deceptively deep pool I’d unsuspectingly fallen trap to.

And suddenly, water was forcing its way out of my lungs with the same force and offensive intensity as the sunlight that just as suddenly invaded my returning vision.

My cousin happened to see me fall in, and – being the only registered nurse with CPR training in the area (talk about destiny!) – promptly yanked me out of the pool by my hair and resuscitated me back to life.

Ah, but the story doesn’t end there. As I said, Death and I are quite close. The second time I faced its touch, however, it was a far more vicarious affair.

My mother married my stepfather when I was eight, and … well, without going into unnecessary detail, Charles and I had a less-than-friendly relationship. There was definitely some animosity between us – on my part due to his encroachment onto my “only man of the house” territory, and on his part due to the fact that, despite our lack of blood relation, I might as well have been a younger, more belligerent version of him, and no one likes to see their own attitude tossed back in their face.

Here I am digressing again. Let me return to my point.

As I said, my parents married when I was about eight – about a year after my stepdad had been discharged from the hospital with debilitating health problems. He had just been diagnosed severe adult-onset diabetes while he was on the operating table for open-heart surgery, the cause of which was a life-threatening heart attack that had put him at death’s door.

Literally. He was comfortably situated, perusing the décor in Death’s house from the threshold for a good six months or so before his health recovered. Fortunately, recent (at the time, at least) advances in medicine had given him an opportunity to move forward with his life.

…Sort of. The health complications didn’t dissipate, and they only worsened as time went on (as these things tend to do). Still, despite the struggles, he was able to leave the hospital in decent health. He met my mom in the following months and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s the kicker: he died nine – count ’em, nine – times on the the operating table while the doctors tried to save his life. When he recovered, they told him that they’d never met a man who’d survived that many revivals in one go. Needless to say, death was something that was regular dinner conversation at my house when I was a kid.

But the tale continues…

Throughout my youth, Charles and I had a very tumultuous relationship. There was a lot of love there, certainly, but a lot of bitterness and frustration too – emotions we both held within us that had nothing to do with the other person, but that we directed at each other nonetheless. Events that brought most families closer together only served to divide Charles and I further, and over the years the space between us became so vast that we could barely see the person on the other side – even though they were right in front of us.

As high school began, Charles and I slowly became more comfortable with each other. He started seeing less of a stubborn, foolish boy and more of a man (though stubborn and foolish I remained). I, in my maturing adolescence, spent more time listening than talking, and started to understand more and more why he’d always been such a dick to me – he, like me, had done whatever he damn well pleased without considering the consequences, the result of which was a painful year of constant surgery, culminating in a record streak of nine deaths on the operating table. While I thought he was trying to get all up in my business all the time, I realized that he was just trying to keep me from doing the same stupid shit that had put him on death’s door himself.

It was in the midst of this realization that he made his exit.

The sudden end of a life, even one that you never really appreciated, forces one to face certain facts about human life. Some of these facts you arrive at immediately, some over time and reflection. Nonetheless, the most important of these facts is both the simplest to grasp and the hardest to accept:

No matter who you are, no matter how you rail against it, no matter how many vitamins you take or how much botox you jam in your lips and cheeks and tits, you are going to die.

But … why?

That was the question that burned in me as I struggled to face my mortality in my late teens. Why give us all of this wonderful shit to do if it’s just going to be taken away from us? Wouldn’t it be better to live forever? Why put an end date on the party when we could achieve so much with another hundred, or thousand, or million years to learn and build on?

If life is such a sweet gig, why does it have to end?

Revival-is-a-small-town-slice-of-farm-noir-NR1HQLBA-x-largeThis is the question that permeates Revival, a noir-style comic created by writer Tim Seeley (Hack/Slash, New Exiles) and artist Mike Norton (Runaways, Gravity).

Wait – that’s a bit of a misrepresentation. That particular question isn’t fully articulated … at least not yet; nevertheless, the general theme is the same: namely, mortality – what it means for us, why it’s part of us, and what terrible things we can do when it disappears.

Here’s a quick rundown: the small town of Wausau, Wisconsin, a place that very likely is absent of a single resident who could spell the word “significant”, is suddenly thrust into the spotlight.

The reason? For causes that are as yet unknown, there is a small group of people who have died … and returned to life.

Among this group, known to the town’s residents as “revivers”, is a young girl named Em. Of all of the revivers, Em is the most important, for three particular reasons:

First, her father is the sherrif — and in a crisis, he might as well be the mayor.

Second, her sister is the head of RCAT, the Revitalized Citizen Arbitration Team, a partnership of police and the Center for Disease Control that is responsible for protecting and investigating revivers.

And third, but most importantly, Em is the focus of a murder investigation.

Her own.

That’s all I’ll tell you, folks. The tale Seeley tells is such an impressive work of mystery that it deserves a moment of your time. Never have I read such a comic – simultaneously suspenseful, spiritual, political, and profoundly human through to its core.

Revival is about mortality, but it’s also about people. In reality, that’s what mortality has always been about: not just what we do when we’re alive, but the impact we have on each other when we’re gone.

See, as I eventually learned over the years since my dad’s passing, there is a very important reason why we all die. It’s not as simple as it seems, but life is precious only because it ends. It’s the fact that we all know we’re on borrowed time that makes every second priceless. Without an end to the story, the plot gets repetitive and cliché, like every soap opera ends up becoming (usually by the second episode…).

And this is apparent in the actions of many of the revivers: as the main plot moves forward hour by hour in the quarantine zone of small-town Wisconsin, some of those who’ve returned take their revival as a curse. Sadly, some of us really do want to die – and who are we to remove their right to do so?

Uh-oh, another controversy at the heart of Revival. As I said, this one keeps the gears turning on so many levels that you’ll need to take a few breaths in between issues.

Long, deep breaths.

Feels good, doesn’t it? Enjoy it while you can.

It won’t last forever…

Until next time.

-Benjammin’

Ben’s Grim Corner

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The New Status Quo: Image’s Lazarus

Ben’s Grim Corner

debtconsolidation1It’s a powerful force, perhaps the powerful force … at least in the present moment. It’s brought us stealthily through the past fifty years right into now, and it appears to be towing us ever forward into the future, drawing us further into its jaws with every turn of its gears. It brings with it interminable, inescapable agony akin to a neverending sequence of paper cuts that inevitably leave us all hemorrhaging – and like those metaphorical tiny slices across our skin, it leaves many of us bloodless. It is the slow death we all fear, and yet can never seem to escape.

I’m talking, of course, about debt.

There’s no beating around the bush at this point, folks. It’s not just individuals who are feeling the sting now: the city of Detroit is officially a ghost town, squeezed dry of every indentured penny over the past decade of combined real estate debacles, oil price fluctuations, and business closures. Europe is a rapidly-spreading wildfire of austerity with no end in sight … at least, as long as things stay the way they seem to be going.

Even here in my own home, my mind is split, half of my thought devoted to writing this op-ed masquerading as a comic review while the other half spins in mathematical circles, adding and subtracting, prioritizing pleasures and necessities to ensure that all of the financial leg-breakers of the world keep their baleful gaze from my doorstep.

But then there’s the other side of the coin (there’s always another side of the coin, isn’t there?). Our eyes and ears are force-fed an unending stream of advertising, bright colours flashing across our vision as loud voices command us to buy this phone or sign for this plan, consolidate our loans with a bigger loan carrying a larger interest rate over a longer period of time. Most of us see it for what it is – trading a bowl of turds for a deeper dish of the same odorous confection – but somehow, those hooks dig their way in and we find ourselves staring incredulously at the bottom of the contract, wondering who signed our names there so nonchalantly.

“He/She was so friendly,” we tell ourselves. “They made it so easy.”

But the smiles and handshakes mask the desperation in their tone – because they’re in it just as deep as we are, and the only way out is on our backs.

The reality, folks, is that this isn’t a race. There isn’t even a finish line. It’s a treadmill, and we – and by we, I mean everybody – have been told that our choices are to run or starve.

And so we run … and starve nonetheless.

As always, however, I can’t help but look forward and consider what’s next. I’m forever stretching my neck to look over that seemingly insurmountable hill to check the next horizon. You see, in spite of the mathematical gymnastics I’m currently performing in my head, I still remember that this isn’t anything new. It’s not fair and it’s definitely not ethical, but looking back over history, this is the prettiest that indentured servitude‘s ever looked. Historically, the current debt crisis is no different for most of us than 19th Century slavery, or the serfdom imposed as a result of feudalism in the Middle Ages. The only real difference between then and now is that now we have a carrot in front of us to substitute the whip at our backs.

But it’s not the seemingly revolving door of servitude we keep reeling around that concerns me the most; what really worries me is that it’s not over yet – or worse, that this is better than what’s coming next.

And it appears I’m not alone. Mark Rucka has seen the dangers of an indebted future, and he’s created a visually-striking new world for us to experience it in.

You may have heard of Rucka. If you haven’t, I’m sure you’ve read some of his work: he’s written Batman (Detective Comics), Wonder Woman (2003-6), Wolverine (Vol. 3), and was a co-writer for DC’s pivotal 52 series. Now he’s contributing his considerable talent to Image’s inventory in the form of a new series called Lazarus.MTVG-Laz2

Before I get into the story, I have to give some textual high-fives to artist and letterer Michael Lark, whose list of comic involvement is longer than my introduction. Seriously, Google this guy and try to keep your jaw closed while you read his resume. His work on this series alone has me excited to see what’s next in his future (hopefully more Lazarus!). Santi Arcas’s colouring also adds such an essential element to this comic; like I mentioned in my article on East Of West, a good colourer can enhance the story as much as they add to the art, and Arcas does just that, allowing the blue ambience of underground lighting to permeate the interior and lengthen the shadows of this dark future dystopia, while the washed-out colours of the harvest fields add to the melancholy of the scene.

Alright, enough blabbing – on to the plot!

The world of Lazarus takes place at an undetermined point in the near future, where the world is now split along very different lines. Where once the planet was divided by political or cultural boundaries, it is now under the purview of a select group of families. Each Family owns territory and controls all of its resources – one of those resources, of course, being people.

The families are small but powerful, holding all of the technological advances, transportation services and financial clout of their particular section of the world within their grasp.

Obviously, these families don’t all get along. The interplay between rival Families is reminiscent of mafia-style gangs: there’s an appreciation for power or a mutual respect based on trade, but they’re not afraid to lay waste to each other at the slightest hint of weakness.

But what of the other people?

Well, they (or we, as the case may be) are split up into two groups; the smaller of the two works for their respective Family, born into indentured servitude for their entire life.

The rest? As Rucka puts it in his introduction, “All others are Waste.” The Waste have yet to be introduced to us at this point in the story, but the implication is that they live a life of pure subsistence, barely able to scrape by while under the purview of the comic’s corporate offspring.

Sounding familiar? It should be. The more I read the news, the more I get the feeling that we’re not as far off from this possible future as we may be led to believe.

What I find the most fascinating about this story is the perspective Rucka chooses from which to explore this eerily-realistic future.

The first issue introduces us to Forever, a member of the Carlyle family. Forever isn’t just any Carlyle, though – she is what’s known as a Lazarus (hence the … you get it, I’m sure); a cybernetically-enhanced enforcer whose sole purpose is to defend her Family from any encroachments on their territory. She possesses heightened strength and agility, as well as a ridiculous healing factor. In addition, every Lazarus is remotely monitored by both an engineer and a doctor at all times. She’s also the de facto commander of the Family’s security forces.

Lazarus-Review-Banner-770x418What I find so fascinating about Rucka’s chosen protagonist is that she appears, at least at first, to be one of the bad guys. It would be like telling the story of the 2008 real estate crash from the viewpoint of Goldman-Sachs‘ head of security: you feel for the guy, but you also kind of wonder how he sleeps at night.

As the story progresses, however (and it’s not that far along – going on six issues – so sink your teeth in now!), you begin to appreciate Forever’s difficult position all the more. She may be an enforcer, but she’s no less stuck in this mess than the rest of the herd. In fact, she seems to be as much a victim of the system as those who slave in the fields. She wears chains, just like the others – hers just shine a little brighter.

After all, what kind of freedom comes with a killswitch?

Beyond that, for me there is a pervading feeling throughout the story that he’s not telling you a tale from the other side of the fence. As I found myself coming around to respect Forever’s situation, I slowly came to understand the real reason why I related to her, even though we’re such profoundly different people in such different worlds.

You see, ladies and gents, we relate to Forever Carlyle not because she is a tragic hero, but because she is just like us.

She, like the workaday men and women of today, is simply a person trying to do the right thing in a deeply fucked-up situation. She’s desperate, fighting with her own indentured status while she keeps the rest of the slaves in line. She sees the tragedy of her own circumstances, but simply digs herself a deeper hole, blinds herself to the plight of her fellows because it’s “not her concern”. She has her own battles to wage, her own demons to fight. She, like us, is in it up to her eyeballs.

And the only way out is on our backs.

Until next week.

-Benjammin’

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Surpassing Our Humanity: Image’s Manhattan Projects

Ben’s Grim Corner

The-Manhattan-Projects_1What are we becoming?

This is a question that I can’t seem to pull from my mind. It’s an inescapable consideration for me, an endless cycle of point-form notes spinning in my mind, like player stats for a fantasy football fan or quantum entanglement equations for a physicist. There are times, I admit, where I find myself writing these blathers (…blatherings? Blatherations? Fuck it) and somehow, without my conscious knowledge, the topic of my choosing is magnetically pulled into this direction – whether it’s Robert Loren and his Think Tank, or the malaise of Jupiter and his legacy, or even my most recent exploration of John Prophet’s Earth Empire.

It’s an addiction. I admit it – the future of our civilization is something so simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating (strange how the two feelings are such common bedfellows) that it almost blinds me to the day-to-day goings-on of my life, and yet I can’t seem to look away. It dominates my thoughts in such a profound way that even when I watch the news, I rarely find myself listening to the talking heads or reading the captions; instead, I’m imagining where it’s all headed, the possible scenarios that could erupt from these events, spiraling us towards destruction – or, just as possibly, pushing us beyond the limits of our imagination and showing us a whole new reality, one where we master our weaknesses and emerge from the chrysalis of today to show that what we once thought was our pinnacle was merely a stumbling step up the ladder of our infinite potential.

But that’s the scariest part, isn’t it? Despite the amazing achievements of the last century, it still feels like we haven’t done a damn thing: we’re still dying of cancer; still filling the air with pollutants and predator drones; still blowing up marathons and embassies, beheading our fellow brothers and sisters in the name of any of the dozens of contagious sicknesses that we call ideologies.

The more things change, the more they stay the same…

And yet, progress is an unstoppable force. The past decade has not been a cascade of horror, but a raising of the veil – it seems on the surface to have shown us the deepest shadows of our nature, but the reality is that this has always been our nature; it is only now that we are coming to grips with it. We have glanced in the mirror many times over the ages, but it is the 21st Century where we have no choice but to stare ourselves right in the face and say, “There’s something seriously wrong here.”

And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing.

This is a little heavy for everyone, I’m sure, but it’s these subjects – human nature, ideology, psychology, social and biological evolution – that permeate everything we have created throughout our history; every piece of art, architecture, mathematics, literature, science, music, and so on carries within it a kernel of us, and with so many kernels around … well, we could make one massive bowl of popcorn.

But for me, it’s today that holds the greatest interest; it’s only now that we have the technology, energy and burgeoning creativity to explore these subjects in such profound, diverse ways – and we’re so good at it that it seems like we’re not even exploring them at all. To me, the greatest trick we’ve ever pulled, we pulled on ourselves – hiding the truth about who we are so carefully in our art, music, and literature that it’s taken us all these centuries just to put it together.

And this truth, this giant bowl of unpopped corn that we call culture is why I spend my days and nights reading issue after issue of fifty different comic series. This is why Julian Munds explores the concepts delivered in the Marvel Universe’s favourite children week after week.

This is why people write comics in the first place.

As I said last week, it is in our imagination that we see the possibilities unfold. It is when we ignore the reality of today and consider what could have been, where we could have gone and what we could have achieved if this thing or that person had been slightly different, if we went left instead of right or sat down instead of walked outside, that we unlock our potential.

It’s not opposable thumbs or analytic brains that put us at the top of the food chain folks: it’s our foresight, our ability to consider what’s next and leave a legacy.

Ah, legacy. Such a lofty, almost holy goal … yet, consider the things we’ve done to ourselves – to each other – for the sake of legacy. No offense meant, I assure you; it’s a glorious thing to dream of, canonizing ourselves in history, galvanizing the ideals of an individual in the annals of time. It’s something we all hope for even if none of us are making moves toward it, a dream we all hold for ourselves – to transcend our mortality and achieve some level of greatness beyond our lifetime. To pass beyond being a simple man or woman and become a monument.

Consider it for a moment: if you could hold the future of mankind in your hands, the greatest knowledge, finest tools, and infinite resources at your disposal … what would you build?

m5

E=MC2, Bitch.

More importantly, would you build it for us, or for you?

These questions are the foodstuff (literally) of Manhattan Projects, a story about the greatest minds of the 20th Century – their genius, their hubris, and their humanity … or lack thereof.

Me, I’m a history nut. I’m also a huge science nerd. So this comic is like pornography to me – nothing gets me excited more than watching brilliant men like Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer reborn in cartoonish detail to act out their own greatest fantasies. But it’s not the historical aspect that got my attention, nor is it the cartoonish way that the most notorious think tank of our time is portrayed. To me, it’s the way that writer Jonathan Hickman shows the near-impossibility of these colossal minds to be something more than human.

Each character in the comic is – or was, rather – a historical figure, and for the most part, each had their own part to play in the development of the real Manhattan Project – with a few exceptions, of course. But Hickman has this amazing way of explaining their eccentricities, brilliance and personality in a way that makes them seem both less human and more relatable at the same time.

Portrai

The Real Enrico Fermi

Take for example Enrico Fermi, a brilliant nuclear physicist who carries the title “father of the atomic bomb”, is an alien from a planet whose intentions for Earth are miles behind the noble mark.

Or Wernher von Braun, renowned rocket scientist who was “inherited” from the Nazis during the infamous Operation Paperclip (if you don’t believe me, please look it up. Fascinating stuff). While still an unbreakable will with a wit to match, he now wields a massive – and dangerous – robotic arm.

Albert Einstein carries a significant role in the story, though it’s not quite the Einstein we all know (you’ll have to read it to find out what I’m talking about…).

Even Laika – the little-known (at least in the West) hero dog of Soviet Russia’s first foray into space exploration – makes a cameo.

And then there’s Nick Pitarra. If Hickman invented the characters, it’s Pitarra’s art that brings them to life. While not quite realistic, the rendering of these historical figures is accurate, almost like caricatures. Fermi’s prominent ears enhance his face – both human and alien – and Einstein’s mustache is, for lack of a better term, perfect. Even Richard Feynman, a man who is almost synonymous with the real Manhattan Project, is drawn in youthful detail to mimic his 20-something years as part of the organization.

But for me, the piece de resistance of this comic is the incomparable J. Robert Oppenheimer, the most legendary personality to walk the halls of the famous Los Alamos testing facility. Historically, he was politically motivated in his later years, even leaning towards Communist at the end of the Second World War; a dichotomous man of intense ambition coupled with an almost contradictory sentimentality. Hickman’s interpretation of the man, however, paints him as a monstrous force of nature, a man who could barely be called a man at all – even more so than Fermi’s alienness or Einstein’s own otherworldy nature. The Oppenheimer of Manhattan Projects is not a great thinker; he does not think of great ideas, he consumes them – literally. Time and again as the story progressed, I found myself staring in revulsion as Oppenheimer ate his opponents – alive if need be, dead if necessary – and, in so doing, absorbed their knowledge, assimilating it into himself to be accessed at any time.

But it’s not just knowledge that he consumes; somehow, his physical consumption of their bodies also carries with it a piece of their consciousness, an aspect of each of their personalities that manifests itself as a slightly different Oppenheimer. While the Manhattan Projects move forward at dizzying speed, battling Communists threats and Chinese invasions, alien encroachment and governmental crackdowns, advancing our species in ways that even now seem to be in the realm of impossibility, a war rages on within Oppenheimer himself. And there is yet to be declared a victor…

I know I keep throwing these real think-piece comics at you guys, and I’d like to say I’m sorry, but I’m just not. If you don’t like expanding your mind through this art like I do, that’s cool – just know that you’re missing out on so much!

I talked at great length this time about the importance of finding ourselves in our art and culture, and Manhattan Projects is exactly that – a combination of history, science and philosophy brought to life through great storytelling and wonderful art.

And permeating all of it is the great question, the conundrum of our age, one that Einstein himself feared even eighty years ago, when he claimed that “our technology has surpassed our humanity.”

What are we becoming?

Until next week.

-Benjammin’

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